The Crisis in Women’s Identity

I discovered talking to Smith seniors in 1959, that the question is no less terrifying to girls today. Only they answer it now in a way that my generation found, after half a lifetime, not to be answered at all. These girls mostly seniors, were sitting in the living-room of the college house, having coffee. It was not too different from such an evening when I was a senior, expect that many of the girls were wore rings on their left hands. I asked the ones around me what they planned to be. The engaged ones spoke of weddings, apartments, getting a  job a secretary while husband finished school. The others, after a hostile science, gave vague answers about this job or that, graduate study, but no one had any real plans. A blonde with a pony tail asked me the next day if had believed the things they had said. ‘None of it was true’ she told me. ‘We don’t like to be asked what we want to do. None of us know. None of us even like to think about it. The ones who are going to be married are the lucky ones. They don’t have to think about it.’ But I noticed that night that many of the engaged girls, sitting silently around the fire while I asked the others about jobs, had also seemed angry about something. ‘They don’t want to think about not going on’ my pony-tailed informant said. ‘They know they’re not going to to use their education. They’ll be wives and mothers. You can say your going to keep reading and be interested in the community. But that’s not the same. You won’t really go on. It’s a disappointment to know you’re going to stop now, and not go on to use it’. In the counterpoint, I heard the words of a woman, fifteen years after she left college, a doctor’s wife, a mother of three, who said over coffee in her New England kitchen.

The feminine mystique permits, even encourages, women to ignore the question of their identity. The mystique says they can answer the question ‘Who am I?’ by saying ‘Tom’s wife…Mary’s mother’. But I don’t think the mystique would have such power over American women if they did not fear to face this terrifying blank which makes them unable to see themselves after twenty-one. The truth is – how long it has been true , I’m not sure, but it was true in my generation and it is true for girls growing up today – an American woman no longer has a private image to tell her who she is, or can be, or wants to be. The public image, in the magazines and television commercials, is designed to sell washing machines, cake mixes, deodorants, detergents, rejuvenating face-creams, hair tints. But power of that image, on which companies spend millions of dollars for television time and ad space, comes from this: American women no longer know who they are. They are sorely in need of a new image to help them find their identity.

Friedan,B. (2010) The Feminine Mystique London: Penguin

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